She follows in the footsteps of distinguished leaders. And yet Aida Alvarez, whom the U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously as the new administrator of the Small Business Administration, won't be standing in the shadow of her groundbreaking predecessors, Erskine Bowles and Philip Lader, for long. All who meet her say the former journalist, investment banker, health-care executive and, most recently, leader of the government's first effort to regulate the nation's two largest housing finance companies, the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, has what it takes to make historical decisions of her own.
Which is fortunate, considering Alvarez, 47, takes the SBA's helm at a crucial point. Small businesses are poised to capitalize on the opportunities offered in the 21st century and need all the financial assistance the SBA can provide. Small-business owners want "an administrator with a seat at the table, who will convey their concerns to the president," Alvarez stated in her BODYimony to the Senate. "They want an administrator who will champion the interests of small business with enthusiasm. If confirmed, I will be that champion."
Recently, Alvarez shared thoughts on her new role with Entrepreneur.
Entrepreneur:Your background is largely related to financial management, and you've said you want to ensure the development of "an effective, disciplined financial organization." Is this one of your top priorities?
Aida Alvarez: I had the privilege of creating a regulatory agency from scratch, which was an entrepreneurial challenge. [President Clinton's] proposed [fiscal 1998] budget requests $18 million to improve [the financial management of the SBA], and I'm fortunate to come in at a time when that request has been made. I believe the SBA can be on the cutting edge as a financial agency.
Entrepreneur:There was some concern about your lack of small-business experience. Do you believe your expertise compensates for that?
Alvarez: The key is the SBA is a financial agency, which needs somebody with financial management expertise. From a standpoint of the advocacy part, I've lived it. My mother owned a restaurant, and I grew up working there. I have a lot of empathy for men and women trying to start their own businesses, and I hope to be an advocate for them.
Entrepreneur:You are the first Hispanic woman to hold a position in the president's Cabinet. Beyond the historical implications, what will be the practical effects of this?
Alvarez: I have to practice fairness and do everything in my capacity to make it possible for more Americans to succeed. Every person brings their own enhancements to the job. I certainly have sensitivity to issues affecting Hispanics. I think that's a plus. But I intend to be the administrator for all small-business interests.
Entrepreneur:How would you describe small business's role in the American economy?
Alvarez: Small business is as vital as it has ever been. We face a time of budgetary constraints, which means we need to find more creative ways of helping small businesses develop and better ways of leveraging resources so that other partners--not just in the private sector but also nonprofits, universities, foundations and government--create opportunities.
Entrepreneur:What would you like small-business owners to know about you as a person?
Alvarez: I come from humble origins. We had to work our way up. I understand what it's like to be in a situation where financial institutions might not greet me with open arms without the help of the government. I appreciate what the government can do to allow individuals like me an opportunity.
Entrepreneur:Like you, many small-business owners have had to work against the odds to excel.
Alvarez: Exactly. It takes a lot of courage to start a small business. You have to believe in yourself to take a risk in spite of the odds. The SBA's job is to better those odds.